2017 Teaching in the 21st Century (T21CON) keynote Kayla Delzer has a message for current and aspiring teachers: “Students often know more about technology than we do.”

Instead of ignoring the elephant in the classroom, she challenges teachers to team up and learn from their students.

“Kids come into kindergarten powered up and super connected. When they come to school they often have to ‘power down’ and disconnect,” she said. “But schools should be a place where we continue to connect kids and use technology in purposeful ways.”

Now a third grade teacher in a town close to Fargo, North Dakota, Delzer says she was fairly certain of her career path at the ripe age of five years old. She was inspired by her mother and kindergarten teacher, who happened to be the same person.

“My mom was that teacher who made everyone feel loved and special,” she said.

Not to be outdone, Delzer’s father served as her music teacher for seven years, grades 5-12, in the small town of Lakota, North Dakota.

“It takes a lot of bravery, but if you can improve the lives of kids, it’s worth it.”—Kayla Delzer

“I knew I wanted to make an impact on students’ lives just like both of my parents,” she said.

During her career she also earned the titles of educational technology guru, acclaimed author, and TEDx speaker after stepping outside her comfort zone to support fellow teachers.

Delzer credits her colleague, a district technology coordinator in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, for propelling her to share her voice with larger audiences.

“It started when that person, Tim Vagle, chose me to pilot the school’s first batch of iPads back in 2012.”

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Vagle was so impressed with the teacher’s innovation that he convinced her to help other educators to infuse the technology into their own classrooms. In return, Delzer received more iPads for her own classroom.

“At that time, I wasn’t even comfortable talking to other teachers about my practices, not to mention leading professional development,” she said. “But I wanted those iPads for my kids!”

Delzer and Vagle presented their work at a national education conference, and received wide praise. The experience motivated her to continue sharing her practices, developing online resources, and within a few years, she became a sought-after presenter and workshop leader, including on the TEDx circuit.

“Through social media, I began seeing my ideas being implemented in other classrooms,” she said. “That scaled effect was enough for me to be brave and to continue sharing my ideas.”

For Delzer, the most rewarding aspect of talking to teachers and aspiring educators is the opportunity to ignite their excitement and help them to re-imagine what can happen in their schools. A part of her message is to encourage fellow educators to share their practices.

“Teaching has to be a team sport. Teachers often think ‘What I am doing is not special,’ but I guarantee that there are others who haven’t heard or seen what you’re doing. To me, it’s a great opportunity to make their classroom even better for kids by sharing what you are doing. It takes a lot of bravery, but if you can improve the lives of kids, it’s worth it.”

Delzer also explores a variety of education topics on her blog, Top Dog Teaching, including flexible learning.

She said that flexible classrooms go well beyond the furniture.

“It’s about letting go of power,” she said.

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The most common misconception she often hears are when teachers equate flexible classrooms to a lack of structure.

“In fact, I feel as though my classrooms have more structure, and that I have better classroom management than ever before,” she said. “Flexibility comes in letting students lead and have more ownership over their own learning, and helping them to determine when and how they work best.”

At the crux of any strategy, however, Delzer emphasizes the importance of positive relationships with students.

“Relationships must come first, and everything else second,” she said. “I hope that attendees of T21CON walk out thinking about how every interaction with kids can be powerful and meaningful. It’s possible for all teachers to improve relationships with kids, parents, teachers, and all others in the learning community.”


What: The 8th annual Teaching in the 21st Century Conference
When: 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Friday, September 29, 2017
Where: State Farm Hall of Business, Illinois State University
Who: Attendance is free for all practicing educators and ISU students
Find out more and register: T21CON.IllinoisState.edu

T21CON is funded through the generosity of two alumni and career educators, Robert and Mary J. English, and is co-hosted by the College of Education at Illinois State and its student organizations.